Abstracted from: Harvey Gee, Why Did Asian Americans
Vote Against the 1996 California Civil Rights Initiative?, 2 Loyola
Journal of Public Interest Law1-52, 1-13 (Spring, 2001) (197 Footnotes)
Of course, blacks and other people of color in this country know that
when Japanese Americans and other Asian Americans are assenting to an
honorary white status. When we play that card, and as long we do that,
there's little reason for other people of color to trust us.
Although Asian Americans have been marginalized throughout most of
the political and judicial debate over affirmative action, we now stand
at the center of the controversy, at once lobbied and held up as an
example by Proposition 209's advocates.
Asian Americans are told by conservatives that affirmative action
hurts us. Yet even as efforts are being made to dismantle affirmative
action for racial minorities, no efforts are made to dismantle the
preferences given to whites that hurt Asian Americans. It is within this
context that Asian Americans must decide if we will let ourselves be
used as pawns in the struggle over affirmative action.
At a recent lecture delivered at Fordham University School of Law,
Harvard Law Professor Christopher Edley, Consultant to President
Clinton's Advisory Board on Racial Reconciliation, spoke about the
challenges facing this nation in trying to cope with the problems of
racial and ethnic justice in America.
In particular, Edley focused on President William Jefferson Clinton's
Initiative on Race, and the President's efforts to build a worthwhile
legacy regarding race relations "that is 150 years older than the
nation itself." According to Edley, Clinton could have made a
significant difference if he concentrated his efforts on two tracks -
policy and values.
Edley suggests that to progress in race relations, the United States
needs strong policy ideas, and that private practices must change in
order to affect necessary social and economic facts in people's lives.
Racial harmony also requires a sense of community. Edley states that
"[i]t has to be about a strategy for changing people's perceptions
and values so that they will draw the circle wider - change their
perception of who is 'us' and who is 'them' - change values in order to
create the moral and the political predicate for bold policy
Further, Edley suggests that this "national conversation on
race" is not an end unto itself. The conversation has to be the
first step in creating understanding, and moving people to a different
sense of community through actions and experiences that will shape
people's values. Edley concludes with his assertion that "[a] major
component of the Race Initiative ... is a search for what we call
promising practices, looking for the effective strategies for changing
people's values and people's sense of community."
Asian Americans have responded to Edley's call for action and have
joined in the increasingly vibrant, and often compelling, national
dialogue on race. The California Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI)
campaign, in 1996, forced Asian Americans into the affirmative action
debate. As demonstrated during the CCRI campaign, Asian Americans
decided for themselves that they must support affirmative action.
Significantly, prior to the strong stand made by Asian Americans in
opposing CCRI, both liberal progressives, who supported affirmative
action, and their conservative opponents, utilized Asian Americans in
their CCRI rhetoric. On one hand, affirmative action supporters and the
mainstream media largely ignored Asian American concerns. On the other
hand, affirmative action opponents were quick to portray Asian Americans
as innocent victims subjected to reverse discrimination along with
whites by allowing African Americans to have racial preferences.
The National Council of Asian Pacific Americans, and other activist
organizations, represent the concerns of many Asian Americans who are in
a quandary over the affirmative action debate. Collectively, the
activist organizations realize that all too often, policymakers look at
the overrepresentation of Asian Americans in higher education,
especially in California, and assume that Asian Americans are one
homogeneous group. When policymakers view Asian Americans as a
homogeneous group, they mistakenly assume that Asian Americans do not
need affirmative action programs. According to this stereotype, Asian
Americans have experienced racial discrimination, yet they are one
monolithic racial group that has achieved economic, educational, and
social success through hard work and perseverance, without turning to
assistance from the government or seeking racial preferences. Thus,
policymakers automatically exclude Asian Americans from affirmative
action programs without further analysis.
The underlying affirmative action controversy illustrates why the
issue of where Asian Americans are situated in the debate is actually
about a larger issue within race jurisprudence. Historically, the Asian
American experience proved that race is not solely biologically
determined, but rather it is a social and cultural construction, which
is constantly in flux. At various times in history, society treated
Asian Americans as honorary whites, as blacks, and yet always foreign.
For instance, during the nineteenth century the white American bosses
considered Chinese laborers as constructively white to further the
bosses goals subordinating black laborers and sustaining the white
racial privilege. Conversely, society treated Asian Americans as
constructively "black" in school desegregation, and regarded
Asian Americans as "foreign" during the Exclusion Era, World
War II, and this treatment continues in present day debates over
immigration. Today, Asian Americans are seemingly considered
"white" in the affirmative action debate.
The traditional black/white understanding of race relations is
inadequate in dealing with the demographic spectrum of racial and ethnic
issues, including many forms of discrimination against Asian Americans.
The need for a more refined and inclusive analysis of race, the purpose
of which is to guarantee equal protection under the laws, is clearly
demonstrated in problem areas such as: Anti-Asian violence, education,
inter-minority conflict, and the shortcomings of the post-Civil Rights
The use of a bipolar paradigm also creates a racial hierarchy by
forcing racial groups to chose one color over another. This binary
construction forecloses an examination of the ways in which Asian
Americans and African Americans have been racialized against each other.
This racialization is well demonstrated in the treatment Asian Americans
receive as "white" in contemporary debates over affirmative
According to scholars Michael Omi and Dana Takagi, both the political
Right and the political Left have divergent approaches to situating
Asian Americans in the affirmative action debate, and how to frame
particular strategic representations of Asian Americans. Political
attempts to situate Asian Americans in the affirmative action debate
illustrate the modern complexity of race. The bipolar model of race
relations reveals an increasing inability by policymakers to comprehend
the patterns of conflict and accommodation, which now occurs between,
and among, different racial groups.
Omi and Takagi suggest that policymakers need a new expansive
analytical framework to obtain an understanding of the present
complexities of racial location and interests. The proposed new paradigm
would extend beyond the shadows of black/white relations, and would not
essentialize race. Instead, it would interpret how groups are
constructed and represented, thereby allowing a more inclusive
understanding of how social policies have a different impact on
This article illustrates the political awakening of Asian Americans
as marked by the Asian American experience in the fight against the
passage of Proposition 209. It will use the thesis offered by Omi and
Takagi, as well as Professor Lydia Chavez's diversity research published
in her recent volume, The Color Bind: California's Battle to End
Affirmative Action, as the basis for analyzing and interpreting Asian
American political activism in reference to Proposition 209. The central
proposition of this article is that Asian Americans occupy a unique
position in the affirmative action debate, and that this fact was
clearly illustrated during the California Civil Rights Initiative.
Secondarily, this article will demonstrate why the contemporary
stereotype of Asian Americans as being apathetic to the political
process is without merit. The opposition by Asian Americans against the
passage of CCRI is just one example of recent Asian American organized
community activism. Other prominent examples include protests during
controversy over the casting of the 1990 broadway production of
"Miss Saigon;" the John Huang/Democratic National Committee
fundraising controversy; the Republican Senate's efforts to block the
confirmation of Bill Lann Lee as Assistant Attorney General for Civil
Rights; and the prosecution of former Los Alamos nuclear scientist Wen
Ho Lee for allegedly providing nuclear secrets to the Chinese
government. Besides reflecting the vibrant political activism of Asian
Americans, these examples underscore the fact that the important issues
of race and ethnicity are just as salient today as they were during the
Chinese Exclusion period in the United States. I believe that by
considering Asian Americans on our own terms, the perception that Asian
American interests are either identical to those of the white majority
or different from African American interests will be clarified,
understood, and addressed.
This article is divided into five parts. Section II summarizes the
origin and development of affirmative action. By examining the
legislative history and important Court decisions concerning affirmative
action, this section allows the reader to achieve a broader
understanding of affirmative action and the struggle for civil rights.
Section II also examines the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth
Amendment to the United States Constitution, which affirmative action
opponents claim is at odds with race- based preference programs.
Section III explores both sides of the CCRI campaign. A particular
focus is on the major efforts of Asian Americans fighting against the
passage of Proposition 209, and events missed by most mainstream
Section IV explores why affirmative action, in its present form,
represents a challenge, especially for Asian Americans.
Section V concludes the article with a discussion on the possibility
of building interracial coalitions in the New Millennium.
[FNa1]. Staff Attorney, US District Court for the District of Nevada,
Ninth Circuit; LL.M. (Litigation and Dispute Resolution), The George
Washington University School of Law; J.D., St. Mary's University School
of Law; B.A., Sonoma State University. E-mail: Harvey_Gee@NVD.USCOURTS.GOV.